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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. It may be the end of an era for the captive lion industry in South Africa – what does this mean for the lion bone trade?

    The South African government made a landmark decision in May 2021 to end the country’s controversial captive lion industry. There are thousands of lions in captive facilities in South Africa, with some facilities offering ‘canned hunts’ and others serving as petting zoos. There is also a thriving commercial trade in lion bones to Asian markets for use as an alternative to tiger bone in traditional medicine. One official reason cited for shutting down the captive industry was ‘the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade’, including ‘through the laundering of poached parts’ into the legal market. Yet whether the legal bone trade has stimulated poaching and laundering are fiercely debated questions among lion conservation experts. So too is whether ending the captive lion industry will put wild lion populations at greater risk of poaching, given that international demand for lion bone will persist.

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  2. Rampant extortion of foreign-owned shops in Gqeberha: a worrying trend.

    Gangs in Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth), in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, have been increasingly extorting foreign-owned shops – particularly local grocery shops known as ‘spaza’ shops – and other small businesses. Several business owners have died in extortion-related attacks, leading shop owners to protest against the violence and what they see as inaction from the South African Police Service. The patterns of violence seen in Gqeberha are similar to those seen in Khayelitsha, on the Cape Flats, where extortion-related violence has flared again since 2020 as extortion gangs seek to expand their reach. Fear of retaliation means that few victims of extortion pursue a criminal case against their attackers.

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  3. What the chequered history of the ‘Somali 7’ fishing fleet tells us about the political economy of IUU fishing in Somalia.

    Foreign fishing fleets – particularly those originating in Iran, Yemen and South East Asia, routinely engage in IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing practices. Somali pirate groups have frequently cited the prevalence of foreign IUU fishing vessels as a justification for attacks, presenting themselves as the defenders of Somali waters against foreign exploiters. However, in reality, foreign IUU fishing operations often have the help of Somali actors, both within and outside government, and rampant corruption within Somali state institutions continues to foster an environment in which foreign fishing actors can act with impunity. The story of the Somali 7 – originally a Thai fishing fleet that has engaged in IUU fishing and human rights and labour abuses over several years – shows these dynamics in action.

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  4. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: investigating the illicit cigarette trade from Tanzania to Kenya.

    Cigarette smuggling into Kenya from Tanzania is a profitable enterprise. Much lower tax rates in Tanzania, porous borders and corruption among customs officials create an ideal environment for opportunistic smugglers from Tanzania to illegally transport cigarettes into Kenya, where they can turn a profit while offering Kenyan smokers lower prices than standard, domestically produced cigarettes. This large-scale tax avoidance deprives the Kenyan state of potential revenue and creates opportunity for criminal actors to profit.

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About this issue

In this issue, we present two stories from East Africa and two from South Africa that explore how organized crime issues link in to wider political and social landscapes.

Our lead story from South Africa looks into the implications of the government’s recent announcement that it will bring an end to the country’s controversial and large-scale captive lion industry and the international trade in lion body parts and skeletons. On one level, this is an organized crime issue, as the risk that the industry may be stimulating lion poaching and illegal trade in parts was cited as a key reason underlying the government’s decision. Yet, ending the captive lion trade is also an environmental and conservation issue (as the captive industry is seen to be damaging to South African ecotourism) and an ethical issue (as lion breeding facilities have been widely accused of abuse and neglect of their animals). Reducing poaching and illegal trade is just one factor in this wider set of policy questions.

Similarly, on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, we look at the booming economy for smuggling cigarettes out of Tanzania. This has emerged in large part because Tanzania sets far lower excise tax levels on tobacco products, meaning that cigarettes smuggled across to Kenya can be sold cheaper than comparable Kenyan cigarettes. Harmonizing excise taxes across the region would remove the incentive for this smuggling economy and remove the opportunity for criminal networks to profit. However, domestic political objectives also shape decisions on this issue such as the health impacts of tobacco use (where higher taxes on tobacco products are often imposed to reduce use), the potential revenue such taxes can bring governments, and the domestic influence of the tobacco industry.

Looking back to South Africa, this time to the Eastern Cape, foreign-owned businesses such as grocery shops and other small businesses are increasingly being extorted by gangs for ‘protection’. Shop owners have protested that police have not provided enough security for their communities in the face of violence and looting. Though extortion has worsened in the area in recent years, it is rooted in xenophobic violence, which has a far longer history in South Africa. Xenophobic attitudes and related violence are a common occurrence not only in the Eastern Cape but throughout South Africa, and foreign-owned shops are often the target of xenophobic attacks and looting. Extortion groups have capitalized on these longstanding prejudices to target foreign shop owners.

Our investigations in Somalia have explored how different crime and corruption issues interconnect. Foreign fishing fleets routinely engage in IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing in Somali waters. Somali pirate groups have, for many years, argued that the prevalence of foreign IUU fishing vessels justifies acts of piracy, presenting themselves as the defenders of Somali waters against foreign exploiters. In fact, many foreign IUU fishing vessels have corrupt links to Somali state institutions to conduct their operations with impunity. IUU fishing, piracy and corruption issues are all interconnected.